January 31, 2004


Undercurrent secures its reputation as best new blog on the block with an evocation of eski's heart of darkness in Bromley-by-Bow.

Cittaviolenta's Oliver confirms his status as one of our foremost poets of London with a wonderful word painting of Soho.

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Angus on The Talons of Weng-Chiang. On Talons' intertextuality, the brilliant BBC site (imagine working for that! What a job!) has a few interesting things to say:

"Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon has often been cited as one of the story's major influences, but this was disputed by Andy Lane in In-Vision Issue Twenty-One, dated December 1989: '[It] picks up not on the truth of Sherlock Holmes, but on what people think the truth is. In fact, the vast majority of Holmes' cases do not take place in London, do not involve fog and hansom cabs, and revolve around villains smaller, rather than larger, than life... The Doctor's costume of deerstalker and cloak is suitably Holmesian, except that Holmes never wore a deerstalker - that was the invention of one of the original artists... Sherlock Holmes' reputation rests upon his powers of observation, memory and deduction... In comparison, the Doctor puts up a bad showing. Fair enough, his memory is as good - he immediately recognises scorpion venom, the Tong of the Black Scorpion, the rat hairs on the murdered cab driver and the effects of opium. But his ratiocinations are few and far between... In fact... one [is put] more in mind of Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, arch-enemy of... Doctor Fu-Manchu. The connections here are more obvious: the fog, the alleys, the crowds of orientals skulking through the streets spoiling for a fight, the base on the river, the villain who expands his lifespan through strange scientific means, the hero and his sidekick who blunder into trouble but escape more by luck than judgment, the melodrama, the plot device that could affect the world. It's almost too good to be true.'"

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"There are things - creatures, if you like - from the very beginnings of Time, and the very end of Time. And these creatures have access to the corridor. They're forever... moving along it. Searching... looking... trying to find a way in. They're always searching, aways looking."

"For the hole in the fabric?"

"Yes. But they must never be allowed in, never ever!"

At the risk of annoying the likes of Luka who aren't so keen on my 'seventies nostalgia' posts, here's another one on Sapphire and Steel.

A little background.

Sapphire and Steel was produced by ATV (ITV midlands region) between 1979 and 1982. It was the brainchild of author P J Hammond, who had previously worked as a writer on police dramas such as The Gentle Touch and Hunter's Walk and on children's fantasy shows like Ace of Wands and Dramarama.

Hammond explains the concept as follows:

"The basis of `Sapphire and Steel' came from my desire to write a detective
story, into which I wanted to incorporate Time. I've always been interested in
Time, particularly the ideas of J B Priestley and H G Wells, but I wanted to
take a different approach to the subject. So instead of having them go
backwards and forwards in Time, it was about Time breaking in, and having set
the precedent I realized the potential that it offered with two people whose
job it was to stop the break-ins."

I've just rewatched Adventure One and is really is an astonishing piece of work. In Adventure One, Sapphire and Steel arrive at a house in a remote coastal area. They find two children alone; their parents have unaccountably vanished, and all the clocks in the house have stopped.

What follows is an exemplary exploration of the uncanny. The uncanny, the unheimlich, the unhomely. Freud's original analysis of the term, you will recall, drew upon the ambivalence of the word: the fact that the unhomely includes the homely. The 'un' is a token not of negation (there is no negation in the unconscious) but of repression.

Adventure One is set entirely within a family home, and Sapphire and Steel treat the familiar objects of the house - the children's story books, the paintings, all the 'old things' - as if they are dangerous weapons. Such objects, it emerges, can be 'triggers' for the temporal breakdowns the two time detectives are duty-bound to rectify. For Sapphire and Steel, the house becomes an intensive space in which every slight movement, every posture and word, potentially has a ritual significance.

If the series is remarkable for its cryptic refusal to pander to the audience's demand for explanation, that is partly because it is attuned to the unconscious, to the submerged knowledges that children still possess but which adults have forgotten. On the level of the unconscious, no explanation is necessary. Everyone knows there is something disturbing about clocks. Everyone knows that nursery rhymes are sinister incantations. Everyone knows that paintings contain worlds you can fall into. Everyone knows there are realities a hair's breadth away from our own into which you can step.

Episode transcripts
P. J. Hammond interviews

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On the g**** naming phenomenon currently doing the rounds at Woebot , I Feel Love and blissblog. I remain ambivalent about 'grime' but convinced that 'garage' is just not appropriate. 'Garage' was a crap enough term in the first place - it always had horrible resonances for me with 'tasteful' dance music, and surely genre-naming has to register threshold shifts in sound. 2 step wasn't speed garage, and 'grime' ain't 2 step. Seems to me that at least two things mark out 'grime' as a distinct genre: the role of MC's and its funkless, sexless mechanoia. Garage is up music, sexmusic, cocaine and champagne audio: grime is a downer. Angus' point that many genre names (disco, punk) are asignifying is well-made; so in some senses it doesn't matter what the name is, but it does matter that it has one. As Simon points out, names can be 'semantic weapons.' Perhaps, like 'jungle' and 'desi beats' the name needs to come from outside, from an insult-turned-into-a-badge-of-pride.

I notice that in Robin's brilliant post on Dizzee (and much else), he uses 'eski.'

(btw, Robin, Marcello Carlin had a similar experience to you re: the Blaine/ Dizzee interface.)

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January 29, 2004



Blimey! Nick Gutterbreakz defends Go West !

To be fair, Nick's is a dispassionate and interesting reappraisal of a record he liked at the time.

But I must admit, if there's a record which sums up more or less everything I hate about the eighties, it would be 'We Close Our Eyes.' Oddly enough, it's essentially for the same reasons that Nick makes (half) a case for it. i.e. the 'BIG, noisey synth sound, HUGE drums, a weird lyric and ... strong vocal...' It's all so BIG....

And in the mid-eighties, snths started to sound horrible. Not like synths any more, but like surrogate brass sections, and Go West were pioneers of this naturalization of electronics. I can only make the comparison again with Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer', which to me, typifies this: like Go West, it's at once completely, clunkily artificial and cloyingly 'soulful.'

And the video, the video: 'We Close Your Eyes' seemed to be on the Chart Show every week for a year, a sign of how functional and quotidian pop had become. The fact that 'Peter Cox looked completely at odds with the 'expected' pop star image - wearing a tatty vest, wielding a giant spanner and covered in what looked like axle-grease' was part of what I detested about them. They were a symbol of a new, deglammed Pop star: the 'ordinary bloke'. Marcello talks about them as being the first generation not influenced by punk; I think that punk itself could be construed as a moment in Glam, and Go West - and That Video - represented the end of Glam. Pop stars were no longer required to be strange, beguiling and otherwordly.

Nick asks: 'why is it okay to like Hall & Oates now, but not Go West?' The crass answer is that Hall and Oates made good records, whereas Go West were shit. I personally don't see any but the most vaguely generic comparison with H and O - yeh, Go West were rock-soul, but I like Hall and Oates in spite of that. At their best, Hall and Oates had at least two things Go West didn't: funk and nuance. Everything is clumsily up Front, BIG, with Go West. There are shadows in H and O: whereas Go West are like having a bright light shined directly into your eyes. All that said, Go West certainly sounded American. That's another of the features I hold them in contempt for. Postpunk pop had an anglo-specificity that the likes of Go West eliminated. They remind me of the sort of records you'd hear on Paul Gambacini's Hot 100 rundown of the American charts on Saturday afternoon; an experience I always associate with trudging around shoe shops for some reason. I remember quailing in horror at the American charts in those days. The banality.... Imagine if our Pop was like that, I shivered. Go West ensured that it was.

I fear that Nick's final defence of GW will raise the hackles of Popists everywhere. It's exactly the kind of thing which irritates the likes of Angus G! 'At least they wrote their own songs and played a few instruments,' Nick writes, 'which is more than can be said for many of today's fame-for-fame's sake teeny-poppers. Marcello opines that Go West were the first of a new breed untainted by Punk. I would suggest that they were actually the (fag) end of the Creative Teen-Pop era - that period facilited by punk lasting roughly 1979-85 when pin-up chart acts wrote and performed their own material.' To the universal disgust of Popists, I think Nick has something here. It's not just about 'playing your own instruments', though, it's about people being able to realise their own vision, and not being puppets of the likes of Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell. (Why is their not a more audio-friendly word for 'vision' by the way?) It seems to me irrelevant whether people actually play on their records, but that they, rather than some cynical projected demographic, are the agent of the process is important.

Incidentally, shouldn't we seriously be thinking about a 'third way' beyond Popism and Rockism?

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Does anyone else use technorati? It all seems to have to gone to shit! Anyone know anything?

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Derek at Poplife takes up the Poptimist theme:

'I think the rock critic can forget how intertextual pop is. People don't just buy the CD, they see it on TV, hear it in the corner shop, read about it in Heat. The cultural temperature in pop is always hot, unlike scenes at the periphary which suddenly feel themselves becoming isolated.'

The Heating of Pop was part of what I was getting at before. The relentless hyping of Pop, its opening out into gossip and celebrity, produces a heat, but the artificial heat of consumer-media-synergy, not the heat of cultural/ social energy.

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January 28, 2004


TV sound turned down, Jordan and John Lydon in the jungle on screen (no, it's not a dream), and outside, behind the screen, snow begins to fall...

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January 27, 2004


to the new Arthur Russell compilation on Soul Jazz.

This is my - belated - introduction to Arthur. And how I've missed him, all this time.

The slur of desire (disco John Martyn?).


A sudden painful nostalgia for the loss of Penman. As a reader as well as a writer.

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'"Does being a Popist mean never having to admit there are any down periods?"

I would say yes, and that 'we' are right.'

Thus the estimable Tom Ewing responds to the question k-punk posed in 'Are We Living Through Another 1985?' (see comments). Tom thinks that the notion of down periods works for artists and genres - and even for the charts - but not for Pop as a whole. (Is it really possible for a Popist to make a distinction between Pop and the charts? Is music bereft of the ephemeral glitz of popularity still Popist Pop?) No-one's perspective is large enough to encompass all of Pop, Tom observes.

This is of course true; and it would be absurd to deny that you can find great records in every year, if you look hard enough. But it's precisely that notion of having to search out greatness that for me marks out a down period in Pop. In an up-period, there is an embarrasment of riches, too much to absorb and consume, a feeling of plenitude that seems to extend into any forseeable future. How could the possibilities exhaust themselves?

Partly what I find unsatisfying in Popism is its divorcing of Pop from social energy. The irony of the current down period is that it is in this respect a Popist utopia. What is the dominance of Celebreality if not an isolating of Pop(ism)'s purest features - glitz, glamour and the Song - all eerily separated from any supporting social trends. No bands, groups, packs: only consumer apotheosis, the telematic auto-domination of the silent majorities, passively driving the whole process from their/ our armchairs.

From economic cycles to psychological moodswings, trends are surely an aspect of all features of life, the comsos, everything. Trends are cultural rhythms, with culture understood in the most impersonal, least humanistic sense (cf Robin's brilliant riff on rhythm as a [micro- and macro-] cosmic force.) As Simon has said, it would be odd to except Pop from this, to imagine that all of Pop's riches are distributed throughout all times equally.

What is it that Deleuze-Guattari write: 'There are dead times, as there are dead places.'

It's tempting to say that these trends are merely subjective, but actually, it's the reverse: trends machine subjectivity. In his book on the collapse of the new economy, Irrational Exuberance, Robert Shiller shows that the optimism of the bubble economy was produced by a trend (just as it was ultimately dashed by it). The economy required optimism, therefore it manufactured it. In the same way, Pop trends produce their own psychologies. Not for nothing is the term 'depression' both an economic and a psychological term.

n.b. I note that k-punk posed the 'are we living through another 1985?' question before. I'm repeating myself

I'm forgetting myself....

It's the same thing....

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January 26, 2004


Angus takes issue with my anti-poptimist post. He complains, memorably, that '[m]arshalling the judgment of history to your side is a bit like calling in the US Army: a lot of your allies will end up as "collateral damage," while in the meantime the worst villains go untouched.' I'm not sure my point was about marshalling the judgment of history so much as resisting the indiscrimination of contemporaneity. Detached hindsight and involved 'now' sight- strike me as a classic 'double pincer': an ostensible oppostion whose two poles actually reinforce and complement one another. My point was that there's an overwhelming pressure, a neuronic pressure - as the nervous system is blitzed by hyperstimulus, by the ambient barrage of publicity - to not see beyond the Now.

I'm naturally with Angus all the way in his loathing for 'the the dread cult of "authenticity" and "realness" and "soulfulness."' What I find slightly puzzling is his opposing Go West to this: weren't Go West sold as "soulful Pop"? They were part of that same hideous anschluss between horribly clunky eighties synthetics and soulful authenticity that reached its apogee with Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer.' As for Angus' plea - 'In a fair world, wouldn't Sting be regarded as just as much a joke as Go West?' I thought he was!

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January 25, 2004


The poet of Glasgow on Saturday night in Scotland's second city. Unmissable...

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On the principle of waste not, want not, I've pasted some material below that was originally intended for New York Press. Apologies to Marcus from Rephlex, who sent me the review copies - I did try my best to get the Rephlex reviews placed. I've also included a piece I wrote for NYP on the Junior Boys - it'll be old news to most of youse lot, but it's probably worth an airing.


Cybotnia: Cybotnia
Rewind Records Soundmurderer and SK1
Pangeia Instrumentos: Victor Gama

Three releases showcasing the diversity of London’s maverick label, Rephlex.

The 8-track ep ‘Cybotnia’ is a collaboration between Cylob (aka longtime Rephlex artist Chris Jeffs) and Astrobotnia (aka Finnish ‘laptop dreamer’ Alekis Perala). Initial impressions of a somewhat forbidding glitched abstract techno give way, on subsequent listens, to a growing appreciation of the duo’s command of texture and mood control. Jeffs and Perala’s digital pallet of electronic moans, groans, squiggles, bleeps and ominous synths is offset by gently reverbed gongs and bells in what makes me think, on occasions, of a laptop update of Can’s ‘Peking O’ or Japan’s Tin Drum. Like all the best electronic music, ‘Cybotnia’ sounds less like something painstakingly programmed than a riotously luminescent audio unlifeform, undulating, pulsating and mutating according to its own alien logic.

Soundmurderer is the alias of Todd Osborn, the owner of Detroit’s first Drum and Bass record store; SK1 is one of the aliases of Ann Arbor’s Tadd Mullinx, a man who has produced instrumental hip hop under a variety of pseudonyms (including Dabyre, on Prefuse 73’s Eastern Developments label). Their joint LP (released in association with Osborn’s fittingly-named Rewind label) is very much an enthusiast’s record. It lovingly revisits the British ‘jump-up’ jungle sound of a decade ago: a genre which consisted almost solely of Jamaican MC ragga chat riding atop digital mash-ups of the ‘Amen’ breakbeat (so named because it is sampled from funksters the Winstons’ track, ‘Amen, Brother’). If that sounds limited, it actually wasn’t: jump-up jungle made astonishingly imaginative use of its few resources, and while history has been somewhat unkind to the then more critically-feted ‘artcore’ genre, jump-up jungle’s libidinal brutalism still sounds fresh. Which is presumably why producers have been drawn back to it recently. Fellow Rephlex artist Luke Vibert is another currently mining a similar seam , on his five ep series, ‘Amen Andrews’. But where Vibert imagines an alternative past in which jump-up jungle is combined with techno, Soundmurderer and SK’s approach is strangely curatorial. In a sonic equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s scene-by-scene remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the tracks seem to have been conceived of as near-exact simulations of the original jump-up sound, so much so that they could comfortably have been fitted into a DJ set in 1994. Even when they sample a rap source (Public Enemy’s ‘Mi Uzi Weighs a Ton’) it is from a pre 94-track. The whole effect is strangely disconcerting: as if a part of Britain’s mid-90’s (multi) culture has been wholesale preserved and re-animated in the USA in 2003.

In every way different is Victor Gama’s ‘Pangelos Instrumentos’. If Soundmurderer and SK1 recreate the near-past, Gama aims to establish a continuity between the ancient past and the present. Gama, an Angolan of Portuguese origin, produces his sounds on acoustic devices he has designed as ‘evolved’ versions of traditional African instruments. These strange machines – so oddly beautiful that they have been exhibited as sculptures – produce a hauntingly desolate sound, simultaneously harmonic and percussive. Gama’s deceptively simple, intricate involutions can sound like Steve Reich played on a ribcage; or junkyard symphonies played on glass; or chimes gently agitated by a playful wind; or automata learning to make music by beating their own mechanoid spines. (I’m reminded of the apartment of the android tinkerer, Sebastian, in Blade Runner.) Yet what breathes through all these compositions is the silence and space of desert(ed) terrains, landscapes populated by no-one but traversed by nomads; geographies beyond ordinary human time…

Richard X Presents the X-Factor Volume 1

‘We’re looking for the X-factor.’
- Line endlessly repeated by judges on the UK’s Pop Idol/ Popstars

Is Richard X a symptom of Pop’s current malady, or a potential cure?

With its hired-hand reality TV star guest vocalists, fruit machine bleeps, simulated adverts and omnipresent, ominous sense of ubiquitous commodification (‘everything is for sale – even this!’), Richard X presents his X-Factor is a distorting funhouse mirror of UK Pop 2003. But step through the mirror and you enter an alternate Pop universe of which X is the mad scientist x-perimenter-God.

XYZ not r ‘n’ r.

The Year Zero of X’s Popverse is something like ‘our’ 1979. X’s No rock and roll in X’s Pop anti-history, which begins with the synthesizer, and ends – or loops back on itself – before ‘our’ Pop universe rehabilitated guitar-n-r and the future ended. X’s is a postmodern Modernism, a revival of Synthpop’s disdain for rock nostalgia.

You will be familiar with X’s trademark technique from last year’s smash, ‘Freak Like Me’, in which the Sugababes sang Adina Howard over Tubeway Army’s ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ Dr X repeats the same trick – splicing black r ‘n’ b with white electro - on Liberty X’s ‘Being Nobody’ (a Human League-Chaka Khan hybrid) and on Kelis’s ‘’Finest Dreams’ (Human League again, plus SOS Band). Yet on the album this seems to be less a gimmick than a formula for a Pop Utopia, or Utempia, in which Pop is racially – and temporally – desegregated. X engineers a Pop present in which Soul and Synths are (un)natural bedfellows. The template, oddly enough, might have been the early Spandau Ballet. Back in 1981, Spandau were soul boys turned leaders of the New Romantic scene, and it’s no surprise to hear their ‘’Chant Number 1’ getting the X treatment on ‘Rock Jacket’. Like the whole New Romantic clique, Spandau were Art Pop, and it is Art Pop that X-Factor dreams of digitally restarting. Art Pop was meta-Pop, and so is X Factor: a self-conscious reflection on 00’s Pop and its status as commodity. ‘Has Richard X sold out?’ asks a ‘meaningless market research’ survey on the CD booklet, in an echo of The Who Sell Out, a previous landmark in Art Pop.

Nothing new? Nothing now? The nullity of a ringtone Pop well past its sell-by date?

Yes or no?

Or X for unknown?


It’s strange, isn’t it, how synthpop is so associated with a certain era?

Rock sounds and riffs are invariably allowed to ascend to some timeless place, beyond the vagaries of fashion, but dare to invoke synthpop’s textures, and you’ll be labeled retro quicker than you can say ‘Moog’ . Sometimes the accusation is justified: the Electroclash scene, or – an even more extreme example - Detroit’s Adult, display a forger’s obsessiveness, a fan’s desire to reanimate, wholesale, a particular moment, sometime in 1980… All of which confirms that nothing dates quite so quickly as Yesterdays’ Future.

And just a few years ago, nothing was more embarrassing than synthpop. We’re indebted to Kodwo Eshun’s study of ‘sonic fiction’, More Brilliant Than the Sun, for effecting a complete re-evaluation of the genre. Eshun’s tracking of the ur-sources of hip-hop, techno, house and jungle took him far beyond the usual suspect, Kraftwerk – who already enjoyed more or less universal respect – and down into the bargain bin depths of the apparently unredeemable and the laughable: Gary Numan, Visage and A Flock of Seagulls. Their rep as no-hopers, Eshun showed, was limited to White Rock(ism): in Techno Detroit and hip hop New York, the synthpoppers were revered as pioneers of electronic music. (Anyone who doubts this should check out Kurtis Mantronik’s 2002 compilation on London’s Soul Jazz records, ‘That’s My Beat.’ The LP – a collection of the tunes that inspired Mantronik when they were played in the New York clubs of the early eighties - includes Visage, Yello, YMO, and Sakamoto.)

What happened along the way, as synthpop begat Mayday and Underground Resistance, was that the synth got severed from the Pop. The Song got lost as the Track got built.

All of that changes with the Junior Boys, whose debut EP, ‘Birthday/ ‘Last Exit’ is released in September on London’s kin records. The Junior Boys – who are actually just one boy, Jeremy Greenspan - hail from Hamilton, Ontario, and there’s a pleasing symmetry in the fact that the Junior Boys’ material is to come out on a London label. Detroit’s infatuation with synthpop brought with it an attendant anglophilia (check all those simulated English accents on the early Model 500 records!), so there’s something of a closing of a cycle here. North America returns synthpop to its home, changed and renewed.

Renewal is the key. While the Junior Boys retain synthpop’s modernism, its intolerance for the old (something that Techno built a genre upon) what they also recover is something that is often forgotten about synthpop: its melancholia. Synthpop is usually remembered as death-of-affect emotionless, Terminator cold. Yet that very coldness often had a keening, plangent quality, an impersonal sadness, as if the machines themselves were weeping. The Junior Boys have obviously absorbed Numan and Foxx, but it is OMD who come to mind most when listening to ‘Birthday’ and ‘Last Exit.’ These delicate, vulnerable songs recall the yearning swoon of something like OMD’s ‘Souvenir.’

Yet there is no trace of revivalism here. In fact, it is just as easy to fit the Junior Boys into another trajectory altogether. Five years ago, the manic X-tasy rush of Speed Garage slowed down as it became acquainted with Timbaland’s R and B. The result was 2-step, an itchy and scratchy, edgy, dance music in which voice and song once again became central, albeit subjected to sampler-micro-splicing reconstruction and recombination. London’s Garage scene has taken another turn, into the brutalist rap of the so-called Grime scene. The Junior Boys’ rhythms – tripping and stuttering in that addictive tic-time Timbaland discovered – are a continuation of the prematurely curtailed 2-step experiment.

In combining 2-step with synthpop – a crude and mechanical description of their beguiling sonic sorcery, which could just as easily be compared to Steely Dan or Scritti Politti - the Junior Boys have mapped out a future for white pop. They have resisted the temptation either to ignore black music – never on the cards in their case – or to redundantly ape it. Instead, they have produced a new white pop template that acknowledges and absorbs black influence, but has the confidence to – literally – speak in its own voice. The Junior Boys’ vocals – vulnerable, quiet, quavering, wavering with longing – are their special treasure. Both ‘Birthday’ and ‘Last Exit’ are intimated in Jeremy’s emaciated, late-late night swooncroon, the sound of a dream voice, a dreamed voice… And make no mistake: this is pop music; there is a subtly compulsive hook in almost every line.

The term ‘neuromantic’ is being applied to Junior Boys and, in its suggestion of Gibsonesque edgy-tech plus synthpop plus emotional ravishment, it’s perfect. The sound of a renewed future….

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January 24, 2004


Amidst the increasing piles of spam I daily wade through was something quite disturbing. 'Need to host child porn, illegal content, Spam advert site? Try www.*******.net you will be able to host anything you desire?' Charming offer.

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January 23, 2004


A few remarks prompted by Marcello's memories of 1985: the worst year for music ever. 1985, so bad it could almost be ..... now? Worth reflecting that in 1985 those who pointed to the obvious poverty of pop in would inevitably have been accused of nostalgia. The tragic fate that awaits such cheerleading should serve as a warning to our current Poptimists. Didn't they know? Couldn't they see they were in a time of privation, of drought?

Ask yourself this: is the choice between British Sea Power and Justin Timberlake really that much better than the choice between the Loft and Go West? Is Beyonce much of an improvement on 85's Whitney?


Newness and nowness lends successful Pop a (con)temporary sheen that is quickly tarnished. A year or so down the track, when the gleam of success and publicity and shiny contemporaneity has left the records, when Time performs a reverse alchemy, transforming commercial dominance into unsaleable carboot sale fodder, that is when the error of our ways is revealed. And come 2005, no self-respecting car boot will be complete without the Beyonce album in it, mark my words. Like much, if not most of today's Pop, it is a carboot-sale record in waiting. You can already detect that fate, you can see the skull beneath the skin, the shadow on the lung.

I suppose all of this is like the anti-dote to SFJ's by now legendary piece on Justin T (a flagwaving exemplar of Poptism if ever there was one) and no doubt my setting Old Father Time on Little Girl Pop sounds like Rockist bullying, a scattering of Pop's starlight by a maudlin Monday morning Real. Pop is about the glorious effusive, delusive Now, isn't it? About losing yourself in the Moment, not about long-term investment?

But this begs the question: does it ever rain in Popistville? Does being a Popist mean never having to admit that there any down periods?

Further note, prompted by Marcello's rundown. The word 'big': doesn't this connote everything crap about that mid-eighties period? Big Country, Big Audio Dynamite, the pitiful Big Sound Authority. As a word, 'big' is, ironically, horribly squat, isn't it? 'Bigness': doesn't that capture the oxymoronic stadium-filling emptiness of the mid-eighties? Eurythmics, Live Aid, Tears for Fears' 'Everyone wants to Rule the World.' They were all Big events. (I hold the first TFF album in high esteem: and their decline, their massification and blusterization is symptomatic of everything that went wrong in the Eighties.)

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January 18, 2004


In his round-up of 2003 round-ups, Angus wondered out loud as to why I'd included the Richard X album in my highlights of 2003. Isn't this everything k-punk should hate, he asked? Surely Richard X is the kind of self-conscious meta-pop I'm pledged to destroy?

Well, I included Richard X in the same section as I included The Rapture: as a guilty pleasure. How could I resist an album that is so shot through with the spirit (and sound) of 79-82? There's a paradoxical nostalgia for lost futures that is part of the k-punk aesthetic. (See nostalgia post below.)

Jameson identifies 'the nostalgia mode' as a defining component of the postmodern. This is nostalgia as form more than content: his examples are Star Wars and Body Heat, films which revived an earlier mode without being explicitly revivalist. (Star Wars revived the adventure serials of the Thirties, while Body Heat, despite having a contemporary setting, revived the Film Noirs of the Forties.)

Richard X represents a postmodernist modernism, or modernist postmodernism, in which what is revived is modernism's very hunger for novelty itself. The Numan and Human League which Richard X retools and refits were the last gasps of modernism in Pop, before the spiralling temporality (nothing is new, everything is forgiven) of PoMo clicked in.

All of which brings to mind Simon's (relatively) recent comments (inspired by rant against Daft Punk *) on the possibility of irony and awe co-existing.

The strange thing is, I'd never thought of Daft Punk as especially detached. I'd assumed almost the opposite: that it was genuine enthusiasm for Supertramp, 10cc, ELO and Wings that inspired them into breaking ranks with accepted taste and simulating their sound on Discovery.

I wonder if there's something about electronic music which lends itself to producing this problematic, though? The original awe-inspiring ironists would be Kraftwerk, they who made detachment into an art form, yet whose sound was gleamingly awe-some. Two other examples: The Pet Shop Boys (eyebrows raised but achingly melancholic) and Yello (aristocratically detached, but capable of swooning majesty).

*And what a rant: 'isn't this the music of shoreditch twats, the Face, those mindless 'i love the 80s' programmes, jamie theakston, asymmetric haircuts worn with a pursed lipped sense of superiority, the shift from ecstacy to cocaine, from inclusivity to exclusivity, new labour, silver and white restaurants, the shift from pubs to bars, the rise of the word 'lifestyle', jimmy carr, that way of speaking so that you're voice goes up at the end so that you can't show enthusiasm for, or commitment to, anything, yeah?, fun-killing dress code policies for nominally 'punk' clubs [hello kashpoint], mini-scooters, kids in designer clothes instead of stuff their grans knitted for them, the rise of the word 'designer', the ubiquity of ciabatta, coffee tables, art-school mullets, childrens tv presenters in iron maiden t-shirts, the chapman brothers and so on and on. you get the idea.'

Love it! But I do like Jimmy Carr.
And if ciabatta is ubiquitous, all well and good, as far as I am concerned.

Posted by mark at 05:13 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack


Is nostalgia 'missing the point', as our unnamed correspondent has it? (See Comments on the Comedy/ Drama post, below).

Is the problem with nostalgia that it gives a false image of the past? That it judges the present too harshly by comparison with a past that never was?

But what if the past was better than the present? What if the greatness of the past was, after all, no illusion? Are we still being nostalgic in ---- noticing this?

Or is the problem with nostalgia that it pretends that the past has not passed --- that the old and the superceded are still current?

Posted by mark at 04:16 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 17, 2004


Dare it be admitted, but isn't Hip Hop the problem these days?

Hip hop is now totally assimilated; not so much a part of the mainstream, as the mainstream itself, Pop's Reality (Principle). There's nothing unsettling about it any more. On the contrary: hip hop is quotidian, everyday. It's everything you'd want to escape from. Sometimes literally. The hip hop uniform of trainers and hooded tops is the default uniform of youth, associated both with a dreary lack of imagination and a wholly unexciting sense of physical threat. And if bling once wore the sheen of Promethean excess, now it is both repellent AND tedious. There's only so long and so far that you taunt the moralising Leftie in you... Something like Cribs(the most boring kind of consumer porn) is unthinkable outside a Hip Hop culture in which Success is all.

Isn't hip-hop now a kind of anti-glam? It is an ultra-masculinist refusal of glam and its feminizing threat.

If you are looking for the 00's equivalent of 70's rock dinosaurs, look no further than Jay-Z, Pharell and their kin. Like those lumbering beasts of three decades ago, they are living off the sonic invention of the previous decade, complacently assuming that they still occupy the avant-garde.

And even when it's good, and it still often is, be honest - can you bring yourself to care?

Take the Neptunes-produced Kelis single. Objectively speaking, I ought to like it, but I just can't summon any enthusiasm for or interest in it. Same goes for the new Ludracris single. Great sounds. Never want to hear it again.

Am I alone?

Posted by mark at 11:42 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack



A whole series about time anomalies? Not time travel , but ruptures, twists in the fabric of time. On ITV?

Those were the days.

1979-1982, to be precise. Not coincidentally, the prime years for k-punk music. David McCallum and Joanna Lumley star in what a fansite describes as '[d]efinitely one of the strangest series ever produced.' No exaggeration, surely.

Sapphire and Steel.

Here was a series, notionally 'science fiction', in which '[n]othing is explained, absolutely nothing. This is where the series gets most of its dramatic impact - the near-total ignorance of the viewer as to what is going on. No nice pauses in the action whilst the master fiend explains his/her plans for conquest of the Universe. In many of the stories, the master fiend is even invisible, so you never even see what it is that's being dealt with. Either that, or the creature is every possible shape simultaneously...'

What stopped the series being frustratingly obscurantist were the unmistakeable contours of a logic, albeit one that was only fleetingly apparent to the viewer. Sapphire and Steel had the consistency of dream; but whereas the tendency in most 'dream-like' narratives is to ultimately defuse the power of the oneiric, Sapphire and Steel never dissipated dream mystery with (over)explanation. Its decontextualised images and sinister sonic refrains were allowed to retain their unsettling force.

Watching now, Sapphire and Steel looks like Tarkovsky's Stalker mixed with Dr Who and Magritte. Science fiction with none of the traditional trappings of the genre, no space-ships, no rayguns: no anthropomorphic foes, only the unravelling fabric of the corridor of Time, along which strange, malevolent entities would crawl, exploiting and expanding gaps and fissures in temporal continuity.

All we knew about Sapphire and Steel was that they were 'detectives' of a peculiar kind, sent from equally mysterious 'agency' to repair these breaks in time. Like Tarkovsky's Stalker, Sapphire and Steel are Sensitives, attuned to chronic disturbances beyond the perceptual range of human beings (including the audience).

Sapphire and Steel carried themselves with an inhuman poise, a lofty sense of their superiority to humans. Like the series itself, the two lead figures were (gratifyingly) lacking in humour. (The self-reference that had begun to infect Dr Who was refreshingly absent from Sapphire and Steel). McCallum's Steel was icily indifferent to the humans into whose affairs he became reluctantly enmeshed; and if Lumley's Sapphire appeared more sympatheitc , there was always the suspicion that her apparent affection for human beings was much like an owner's feeling for a pet.

Like Nigel Kneale (Sapphire and Steel's Adventure One is a virtual remake of 'The Stone Tape'), like the best of Dr Who, like Lovecraft, Sapphire and Steel's appeal lay in its exploration of the Gothic side of SF. Its frissions came from the uncanny, from the shudders it managed to evoke from familiar objects and phenomena which refuse to ever relinquish their weird associations. The conduits for temporal breakdown are often Freud's strangely familiar: in Adventure One, children's nursery rhymes; in Adventure Four, old photographs.

Sapphire and Steel is about as far away from Now SF as you could imagine. Low-budget, small cast (most often only Lumley and McCallum and a couple of others), high-concept: a world away from the massified likes of the Matrix trilogy.

Posted by mark at 10:44 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

January 11, 2004



Massively pleased to have made Troubled Diva's round-up of 2003 for some of my Dr Who comments (see September 27th) but it seems I may have to eat my words about Colin Baker. (Eagle-eyed readers will note that I have already eaten my words, unprompted, about Dido - described early on this year by k-punk as the very personification of blandness or somesuch - Girls Aloud and, to some extent, David Sylvian solo, so it's nothing new.) Both the estimable Angus and Tom Ewing have surprised themselves by really liking Vengeance in Varos, a Colin Baker adventure. My goodness: is a transvaluation in progress? Annoyingly, UK Gold has taken Dr Who off its late, late night Fridays and Saturday omnibus slot and buried it in more bite-size pieces earlier on in the evening throughout the week, so chances are I won't have the opportunity to catch any of the C.Baker episodes to see if this astonishing re-evaluation is merited. (At least I managed to re-view almost the whole of the Pertwee and the Tom Baker episodes before this re-scheduling travesty. Bliss!) Hmmmmm.

Remind me I owe you posts on irony and awe, Children of the Stones and Sapphire and Steel, will you?

Posted by mark at 01:54 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack



Well, now that the Big Read has wound up - Lord of the Rings the best novel ever, anyone? - the BBC tries the same trick with British situation comedies. The public have been polled about their favourite sitcoms and the Top Fifty, as presented by Jonathan Ross this evening, was a largely predictable run through the usual suspects, interupted by the odd perplexing interloper - the woefully average My Family achieving any sort of placing was distressing enough, but the Vicar of Dibley reaching the top ten (some twenty odd places higher than Hancock and Reggie Perrin) really was a joke, one that Ross couldn't resist a gratifying sneer at. I fully expect Dad's Army , which, like The Two Ronnies, Tommy Cooper, and Laurel and Hardy, I've always found faintly exasperating rather than funny, to win.

Unlike drama, which is dead on British TV these days, comedy is something that television here still does well. The Office, League of Gentlemen (which despite not being a sitcom featured in tonight's rundown), Peep Show, Phoenix Nights... These are comedies as good as anything British TV has ever produced.

A slight caveat. OK, The Office has definitively jumped the shark. Taking Brent out of the office in the Christmas specials destroyed the central conceit and with it much of the humour. The Office went the way of Alan Partridge: what had began as a structural critique ended up as the personal lampooning of one man. Alan Partridge was funny initially not because of Partridge's cluelessness but because such a buffoon was allowed to have a broadcasting career. (And anyone who thinks that the BBC is way too cool and knowing for Partridge-style light entertainment didn't watch the frankly painful Eastenders Christmas Special). In the same way, The Office lost its satiric point once Brent was sacked. Now the target wasn't bosses and office culture but Brent's pathetic absurdity. The setting up Brent as a minor mini-celebrity (who's slipped, lightning quick, from Barely Was to Has Been) was a creditable enough attempt to extract laughs from the grim phenomenon of docusoap micro-fame (witness the scene with Brent on stage with Bubble of Big Brother and that bloke off the Halifax ads), but this kind of meta-awareness is always a sign of senescence.

On Drama by the way. It really is poor, isn't it: the BBC imagining that lavish costumes and period detail will substitute for innovation or, to coin a phrase, relevance, but even at its worst still streets ahead of ITV's lacklustre efforts. There's a curiously un-ITV quality about its showcase Dramas. ITV is usually idiot-TV, monkey-TV, two-second attention span-TV, but when it turns to drama, ITV turns all ponderous and laborious. I did my best to sit through The Mayor of Casterbridge at Christmas, but it was catatonically, body-numbingly slow: as if the all that conspicuous Gloss has hardened and hardened, calcifying everything. And as for those Kemp (Martin and/ or Ross) Drama Specials: they are less like star vehicles than versions of Jacob Marley's chains, money money everywhere, but weighing the productions down rather than liberating them. The fact is, ITV's Drama department has almost no instinct for drama: for pacing, for the simple but elusive art of making you want to know what will happen next.

Posted by mark at 01:32 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

January 08, 2004


'Where does it all come from? Maybe nightmares are just intensely weird dreams. I doubt it. There is something more sorcerous than that, in the black ones, the voidal ones that rend sense from sensibility, cast up shadows of demons and worlds torn asunder. If there are other dimensions, other planes, other spheres of existence, they burst into the downed walls of the sleeping mind in nightmares. Are they glimpses of these planes of reality? Too vast, unholy, and unearthly for our weak human minds. Are they messages from the void? Or echoes of the place we go when we die?' Baal with his Lovecraftian speculations on the origins of nightmares. Anyone who cares about good writing, don't waste time here, go to Erase the World now. (And check out his brilliant post on railway journeys, too.)

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Pointless, now, surely to produce the fanfared second part of k-punk's end of the year round-up - only eight days into the year and all that stuff just seems so old . Have to agree with Simon that the task of identifying 03's (or any year's Madeleines) is well-nigh impossible until long after the event. A year's taste - as in what a year tastes of - is more likely to be carried by its mediocre, or downright atrocious, products. Anything one likes or treasures is likely to transcend the era that produced it if only because one continues to listen to it long after the year in was produced. But the Bad, the Mediocre, they remain mired in their time, marked by it and now markers of it. What do the late eighties taste of if not Go West or T'Pau (who had a certain pompous majesty, come to think of it)?

The second part of the round-up was to have focused on records I hadn't bought - would never buy - but which were Significant in 03. A couple of tracks I was reminded of by other people's lists: Coldplay's 'Clocks' (wonderfully evoked by Jess, I think, and championed by Matt not so long ago, if memory serves) and Moloko's 'Familiar Feeling' (which if I'm not mistaken featured on Jon Dale's list).

I'd initially pegged Coldplay as Hated Generic Indie Enemy, but I've gradually found myself beguiled by them. I think it's the fact that they're piano-led which allows them to escape the R and Recapitulation-syndrome. There's a milky, watercolour diffuseness about their sound, a slightly out-of-focus impressionist haze to it that prompts me to imagine dubby remixes in which the space in their tracks was exploited and expanded. 'Clocks', as I think Jess said, is like a requiem for dance music; Matt spoke of 'rave comedown piano', and that's perfect. 'Clocks' is like Derek May on valium. There's a thrilling disconnect between the exhileration of the cascading piano and the desolate tone of Martin's voice.

'Clocks' can be put alongside the Moloko track because both were tracks about time, about deja vu and madeleine moments. (I imagine: because Coldplay's lyrics have never really registered with me; any message I take from them comes from the mournful grain of Chris Martin's voice, another smeary squall in the Coldplay pallette). Roisin's lyrics, however, never other than gnomic, demand interpretation. Here is a voice in every way opposed to Martin's: it's angular, assumed, pointedly unnatural. And not one voice, but many. 'Familiar Feeling' is about a Time that is not sequential, the already-seen time of the lovers' first encounter.

And then, in my round-up, I would have talked about Diva versus Dido. If the iconic, inescapable image of the Female in 03 was Beyonce (with Christina not far behind), then the quietly implacable, implacably quiet woman's woman was Dido. I've said nothing aboult Dido here (reserving my paeans to her for the comments box on I Feel Love), but 'White Flag' was one of my favourite pop singles of last year. Beyonce and Christina insist on squaring the circle: in presenting themselves as objects for the male gaze and as empowered Women. Dido - whose prettiness is as bland as her records often seem to be - has always insisted on the right to vulnerability and failure. I'm willing to bet that Dido's audience is almost exclusively female, to an unusual degree in pop artists. Dido is a woman-for-women in a way that Beyonce and Christina will never be. Belying her reputation for AOR confectionery, 'White Flag' is a song of desperate love, coming from the thin line between loving dedication and stalker-obsession. There's something in the phrasing and in the ice-cold certainty of the song's emotions that reminds me of the Ferry of 'Sea Breezes' or 'Chance Encounter'; you can almost imagine the Ferry of the seventies covering it. Dido's delivery - almost stilted, lacking in the throaty passion de rigeur in these r and b dominated -times - is refreshingly cool. 'White Flag' forms a neat contrast with 'Life for Rent', the title track of the LP, which sings of the opposite condition: a dissolute inability to commit. It's like Jean Paul Sartre meets Sex and the City. Wandering aimlessly through the hypermarket of the postmodern, fingering all the options but never settling on any one of them, Dido castigates herself for her failure to really engage, to stick at or believe in anything for very long, to make meaningful choices. She concludes that, if this is the case, she 'deserves' nothing, because nothing is really hers.

And then I would have talked about Girls Aloud, who I have managed to fall in love with. Like Liberty X, they seem now to have escaped the taint of Popstars. Their story is almost the Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle in reverse. If McLaren's film seemed cynical in the seventies, its essential message - that Pop success can be manufactured through the media - is now so commonplace as to be utterly unremarkable. Follow McLaren's logic and you end up not with the Mephistophlean Situationist McLaren imagined himself to be, but Simon Cowell - the embodiment of instrumental cynicism. Popstars adds a Baudrillardian twist of the knife to McLaren's scenario by inducting the public into the star-making process. So far, so ho hum.

But Girls Aloud - with their sullen demeanour, with their spoilt kid attitude, with the whiff of scandal and violence surrounding them - have given every impression of twisting the puppet strings . 'No Good Advice' and 'My Life Got Cold' (this latter better, needless to say, than the 'Wonderwall' it shamelessly steals from) were an unexpectedly wintry brace of singles, which, as Marcello rightly pointed out, nihlistically advertised the vacancy at the heart of (contemporary) pop. Don't ask me to identify what appeals about the - superficially perfunctory - cover of the Pointer Sisters' 'Jump!', but every time it came on MTV or the Box, I turned up the volume.

Posted by mark at 07:53 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack